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Should Christians support the separation of church and state? An interview with Mark David Hall, author of “Did America Have a Christian Founding?”

Ryan Denison is the Senior Fellow for Theology at Denison Forum, where he contributes writing and research to many of the ministry’s productions.

He is in the final stages of earning his PhD in church history at BH Carroll Theological Institute after having earned his MDiv at Truett Seminary. Ryan has also taught at BH Carroll and Dallas Baptist University.

He and his wife, Candice, live in East Texas and have two children.

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Should Christians support the separation of church and state?
The Supreme Court of the United States. Stock photo.

In early 2020, Denison Forum interviewed Mark David Hall, author of Did America Have a Christian Founding?: Separating Modern Myth from Historical Truth

As Matthew J. Franck wrote, Hall’s book is “a fresh look at the very real extent to which Christian thought and belief played a vital role in the making of our country.”

Hall is the Herbert Hoover Distinguished Professor of Politics and Faculty Fellow in the William Penn Honors Program at George Fox University. He is also associated faculty at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University and senior fellow at Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion.

The following questions and answers are excerpted from our longer interview with Hall (which you can listen to below). They have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Should Christians support the separation of church and state?

In 1947, the US Supreme Court issued a decision where they said the first amendment to the US Constitution—the establishment clause, specifically—creates a wall of separation between church and state. And this wall has been used to attack religious liberty provisions, aid to private religious schools, and all sorts of things. 

What I argue in the book is that, in one respect, all Christians support a separation of church and state. The church and the state are separate institutions. We don’t want the state running the church, and we don’t want the church as an institution running the state. 

However, with that said, there’s absolutely no reason, from a constitutional perspective, to think that people of faith cannot speak into the political system, work through their legislatures, or try to bring about good public policy—whether we’re talking about the abolitionist movement, or the civil rights movement, or the pro-life movement. These things are all constitutionally permissible. 

Christians can debate whether or not we should advocate for these things, but there’s absolutely no constitutional bar for people of faith to be involved in politics.

When did the concept of the separation of church and state gain popularity?

Providentially, just a week ago today, the US Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Espinoza vs. Montana. That case involved an 1889 Blaine Amendment, a product of the profound anti-Catholic animus that was raging through the country in the nineteenth century. 

(Editor’s note: That case has now been decided, “holding that if a state subsidizes private education, the Free Exercise Clause does not allow the state to deny that subsidy to a school because it is religious.”)  

In that era, public schools were mainly Protestant schools. Roman Catholics, now in significant numbers, came along and said, “We would like funding for our schools.” And, all of a sudden, you begin to have this rhetoric of a separation of church and state: “We [the government] cannot fund sectarian schools.” 

A fellow named James Blaine proposed an amendment to the Constitution to this effect. That amendment failed, but thirty-seven states then adopted Blaine amendments. So that’s where we get this rhetoric of a separation of church and state. 

But please note that was not a principled separation. 

Basically, the advocates of these amendments were perfectly happy to have Protestant Bible reading and prayer in school. What they were doing is trying to exclude Roman Catholics. So, you had prayer and Bible reading kicked out of public schools in the 1960s. 

This whole idea of the separation of church and state really comes from a very pernicious part of American history.

Does the separation of church and state still matter today?

A couple of years ago, there was a case involving the Missouri Blaine Amendment. 

Missouri had a program that provided safe playground surfaces to nonprofits. A Lutheran preschool applied to participate in this program, and this preschool was ranked very highly, like number seven out of forty-seven applicants. The state could provide thirty safe playground surfaces. 

But Missouri said, “Oh, I’m sorry. We can’t fund your preschool because it’s religious.” 

This case was litigated up to the US Supreme Court, which said, appropriately, that states cannot discriminate on the basis of religion. So, if this preschool is otherwise qualified for these safe playground surfaces, it cannot be denied it because of Missouri’s Blaine amendment. That was a 7–2 decision. 

The case that was just heard involved a very similar Montana provision. Montana had a program to aid parents who wanted to send their kids to any private school, religious or secular. The Montana Supreme Court said, “We’re sorry. This is unconstitutional because of our Blaine Amendment.” 

This case was recently heard about a week ago. By the time your readers see this, it will have been decided, probably in June or July of this year. I’m very optimistic that, by a vote of at least 5–4, the US Supreme Court will say to Montana, “You cannot discriminate on the basis of religion.” 

(Editor’s note: “The U.S. Supreme Court effectively killed state constitutional provisions in as many as 38 states that bar taxpayer aid to parochial schools. The vote was 5-4. . . . The court’s decision is the latest in a series of recent rulings that have lowered the traditional wall separating church and state by requiring government entities to treat religious and nonreligious institutions more equally, even when that means sending public money to religious institutions.)

Now, Montana could have decided not to fund any private schools at all. That’s their prerogative. But if you’re going to fund private schools, you can’t say we’ll only fund secular schools and not religious. That’s a clear violation of the free exercise clause of the First Amendment, and I think appropriately so. 

Who should read your book?

I’ve written or edited a dozen academic books that have been published by Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, and the University of Notre Dame Press. This book is a distillation of a lot of serious scholarship that is well supported. 

It could enable your readers who are already sympathetic to what we’re talking about to better defend their beliefs.

 But I think it also could help win converts, especially people in the middle who aren’t quite sure what to think about this wall of separation between church and state. 

Perhaps Did America Have a Christian Founding? can help people understand that America’s founders were not anti-religious, they were pro religious liberty, and that they certainly did not want a wall of separation between church and state.

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